When it comes to cutting the federal budget, talk is cheap. But as the New York Times is just the latest to report, across the country Republican candidates are talking tough about spending cuts they can't - or won't - explain. Yet even as they promise another $700 billion Treasury-draining windfall for the wealthy, the budget-busting Republicans remain silent on where their painful cuts would come.
While the national debt tripled under Ronald Reagan and doubled again under George W. Bush (including a $1.2 trillion annual budget deficit he bequeathed to Barack Obama on January 20, 2009), the GOP has made spending discipline the centerpiece of its 2010 midterm campaign. As the Times detailed:
If there is a single message unifying Republican candidates this year, it is a call to grab hold of the federal checkbook, slam it closed and begin to slash spending. To bolster their case that action is needed, Republicans are citing major legislation over the four years that Democrats have controlled Congress, notably the financial system bailout, the economic stimulus and the new health care law.
But while polls show that the Republicans' message is succeeding politically, Republican candidates and party leaders are offering few specifics about how they would tackle the nation's $13.7 trillion debt, and budget analysts said the party was glossing over the difficulty of carrying out its ideas, especially when sharp spending cuts could impede an already weak economic recovery.
In rare moments of candor, some GOP leaders have admitted as much. Last week, Texas Rep. Joe Barton acknowledged, "we may be a little bit short on specifics." And after rolling out the much ballyhooed and even more maligned "GOP Pledge to America," would-be House Speaker John Boehner essentially confessed to the charge that "Congressional Republicans have used the old trick of promising specific tax cuts and vague spending cuts." Confronted by Chris Wallace of Fox News that "there is not one single proposal to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid," Boehner lamely responded:
Chris, it's time for us as Americans to have an adult conversation with each other about the serious challenges our country faces. And we can't have that serious conversation until we lay out the size of the problem. Once Americans understand how big the problem is, then we can begin to talk about potential solutions...
Let's not get to the potential solutions. Let's make sure Americans understand how big the problem is. Then we can talk about possible solutions and then work ourselves into those solutions that are doable.
But as the Times and Bloomberg noted, even the GOP's lone promise to immediately return to pre-recession FY 2008 levels for "non-security discretionary spending" with would result in devastating cuts to popular and needed programs. Those draconian cutbacks would slash more than 20 percent of spending by departments like Education, Transportation, Interior, Commerce and Energy:
U.S. House Republicans' pledge to cut $100 billion from the federal budget next year would slash spending for education, cancer research and aid to local police and firefighters.
Keeping the midterm-campaign promise would require a Republican-led Congress to cut 21 percent of the $477 billion lawmakers have earmarked for domestic discretionary spending.
Which is why most Republicans are afraid to offer any details of regarding their so-called fiscal discipline. Their professed ardor for spending cuts is the love that dare not speak its name.
Indiana Congressman and rumored White House hopeful Mike Pence provides a case in point. While decrying "runaway federal spending on steroids," last month Pence refused to tell NBC's David Gregory a single major program he would cut:
GREGORY: I read through this. I want to know where is the painful choice that you're prepared to make on spending?
PENCE: Look, I, I never thought you'd ask. Look, cutting discretionary spending.
GREGORY: On what?
PENCE: Down to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout...
GREGORY: Name the painful choice on a program that you're going to cut.
PENCE: Look, we could reduce, we could reduce government employment back down to 2008 levels. That's $35 billion over 10. We could eliminate government programs like the Save America's Treasures programs.
PENCE: That's $300 million.
Then there's California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina. Along with Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, John Boehner, Tom Coburn, John McCain, Kay Bailey Hutchison and the legion of other Republican alchemists, Fiorina wrongly claims that cutting taxes increases government revenue. But while the disgraced HP CEO maintains that "you don't need to pay for tax cuts" because "they pay for themselves," she refused to explain to Chris Wallace of Fox News how "The reckless spending must stop." Even when, as ThinkProgress reported, he asked her seven times:
WALLACE: But forgive me, Miss Fiorina, where are you going to cut entitlements? What benefits are you going to cut? What eligibility are you doing..
FIORINA: Chris, I have to say, with all due respect, you're asking a typical political question.[...]
WALLACE: It may be a typical political question but that's where the money is. The money is in Medicare and Social Security. We have baby-boomers coming. There will be a huge explosion of entitlement explosion and you call it a political question when I ask you to name one single entitlement you are willing to cut.
FIORINA: Chris, I believe to deal with entitlement reform, which we must deal with, we ought to put every possible solution on the table, except we should be very clear we are not going to cut benefits to those nearing retirement or those nearing retirement or those in retirement.[...]
WALLACE: I'm going to try one last time, and if you don't want to answer it, Miss Fiorina, you don't have to.
FIORINA: It's not a question of not wanting to answer it.
One Republican who has answered it is Wisconsin's Paul Ryan. But his prescriptions, including the inevitable rationing of Medicare through an under-funded voucher scheme and dramatic benefit cuts under a privatized Social Security plan for future retirees, have left him largely alone within the Republican Party. For his part, Ryan has acknowledged the GOP's allergic reaction to his Roadmap for America's Future, "my plan is not the Republican Party's platform and was never intended to be." And with good reason. With its draconian spending cuts, Medicare rationing, tax cuts for the rich and Social Security privatization, a GOP platform based on Ryan's Roadmap would about as popular as the Ebola virus. As the Washington Post put it:
Many Republican colleagues, who, even as they praise Ryan for his doggedness, privately consider the Roadmap a path to electoral disaster...
The discomfort some Republicans feel for Ryan's proposals goes beyond November. If Republicans were to take control of Congress next year, Ryan will rise to chairman of the Budget Committee. He could use the position to hold colleagues accountable for runaway budget deficits and make it more difficult for fellow Republicans -- and Democrats -- to stuff bills with expensive projects that add to the problem.
But for the Republican Party, November is all that matters. And by all indications, they will be rewarded for talking a good game, if not telling the truth.